When I am traveling on oral history research trips, I often think about Gordon Day. Mr. Day was 78 years old when I interviewed him several years ago. He was one of the first charter fishing boat captains in Morehead City, N.C.. When the Second World War reached America in 1941, the Navy recruited him to search for German submarines 25 miles out at sea off Cape Lookout Shoals.
This was at a time when those U-boats terrorized the Atlantic coastline. Smoldering wrecks and burning oil slicks flickered on the horizon, and the empty beach echoed with the haunting clang of a thousand buoys holding up submarine nets. But every night, like some latter-day Don Quixote, Mr. Day piloted his little fishing boat past those buoys. Armed with only a pistol and a radio to alert Marine Corps planes, he searched the dark ocean for submarines. Half a century later, I could still hear the fear and loneliness of those nights in his voice.
I first gave this lecture at the 25th anniversary celebration for the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the spring of 1999. The Carolina Alumni Review published the lecture that year in its July/August issue. You can also find my story on Lois Epps Jones, including a photograph of her, here.
What I recall even more vividly from that interview, however, are the little yellow Post-It notes that his wife kept placing on Mr. Day’s armchair to remind him who I was, why he was talking with me, in what room of the house he could find her.
Mr. Day had Alzheimer’s Disease. He did not look ill. He was a tall, handsome wiry man, with an easy smile and warm brown eyes. But the years of his life had been falling away.
I had seen it happen with some of the other elderly people whom I have interviewed, and of course particularly those with Alzheimer’s Disease. They first forget the most recent events in their lives, then memory recedes, year by year. They forget the last few years, then the 1990s, then the ‘80s, then the ‘70s and so on.
Mr. Day recalled the smallest details of his youth and of his life during the Second World War, down to the radio codes he had used in the navy. But he had already forgotten his wife as she was when I visited, remembering her instead as the lovely young war bride with whom he had fallen in love. He was tender with her, and maybe she didn’t mind in all ways. She had to know, however, that he was on the edge of losing all memory of his love for her, because they had been married in 1944 and his mind had already lost most of the 1950s.
And so I watched Mrs. Day wage a crusade, one far more quixotic than her husband’s during the Second World War, a battle of little yellow Post-It notes to keep the present and the past from slipping from their grasp.
Listening to History
I suspect most of us share some sense of Mrs. Day’s loss at some point in our lives. We lose a mother or father, or a grandparent or a great-aunt or -uncle, and our grief is deepened because we never asked them more about their life: about the stories of their youth, what made them who they were, what touched them most deeply. We never took an interest until it was too late.
Far too frequently, I have arrived with my tape recorder in hand and discovered that the last person has died who lived through a typhoid epidemic, led a civil rights protest, watched the Wright brothers’ first flight. Books and manuscripts abide, but memory that never finds its voice simply vanishes.
“Life is very brief, except to the young,” my grandmother Vera used to warn me, and I try to respect that: to revere the voices of our past and seize the spoken word before it’s too late.
That is why I am so ardently—my wife says “obsessively”—devoted to collecting, preserving and writing about the oral history of North Carolina. My oral history interviews inform my scholarly research and writing and I do not think that we can overestimate the unique importance of listening to our elders’ stories to shaping a new, more vital and relevant sense of our American past.
But while that scholarship is the heart of my mission, the stirring dramas and rich emotional content of the stories that oral historians like myself put onto tape resonate far beyond the walls of any university. That makes it possible for oral historians to nurture a broader public discussion of history in newspapers, radio, film and even in theater.
For the last decade or so, for example, one of the things I have done is write an oral history series, called “Listening to History,” for the Sunday edition of the Raleigh News and Observer, the state capital’s newspaper. I am always surprised how many of the newspaper’s readers, of all ages, seem to find something in these elderly people’s words that touches them, surprises them, opens their eyes or gives them hope or new inspiration.
I believe that these oral history interviews make it possible to craft a history of our state that is more nuanced, diverse and rigorous than would ever be possible without them.
Above all, I hope that they will help us to see the past through the eyes of people whose voices have rarely been heeded—a Morehead City nurse who treated the burned survivors of those German U-Boat attacks during World War II, an oysterman at Goose Creek Island who described the dying days of the fishing industry, a sharecropper’s daughter in Warren County, an African American barbecue chef in Wilson extolling the virtues of slow cooking and traditional, hickory-cooked barbecue, the young farm women who ended up working as prostitutes at Kinston’s infamous red light district “Sugar Hill.”
Each is only one voice, but together I hope they shape a mosaic of memories as rich and diverse, as sweet and as tragic, as thought-provoking and as entertaining, as the North Carolina past itself.
His People’s History
I grew up in eastern North Carolina, but as I travel through our small towns and back roads I still find every interview a revelation. The stories I hear are sometimes troubling, but often delightful, and always unpredictable.
A couple years ago, for example, I interviewed an 80-year-old gentleman named John McDonald about his family drugstore, which as been in the same West Durham locale since 1922. I asked Mr. McDonald how things had changed over all those years. I guess I expected him to lay into the chain stores or to complain about the new tattoo and body-piercing parlor next door. Instead, he glanced around the old pharmacy, with its ancient soda fountain and antique cash register, its dark blue bottles of Dr. Johns and Cow Balm, and he said, matter of factly, “See that booth over there? When I was little, it used to be on the south wall.”
(See my article on John McDonald here.)
I even welcome the unexpected confrontations that a scholar can avoid in archives and libraries, but not on the road. I remember when one of my graduate students and I interviewed the Rev. Leon “Buckshot” Nixon, one of the most important figures in New Bern’s unheralded but very important civil rights movement.
An elderly man with a long white beard that we thought made him look like the great African-American leader, Frederick Douglass, Nixon eyed me suspiciously for a moment, then announced that he “wasn’t going to tell his people’s history to a white man.”
Then he glanced at my graduate student, who was African American—this is when I was teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill—and he said, “And you’re a student at a white school, and you’re cooperating with the enemy.”
He started to walk out, I later tried to walk out, pandemonium erupted again and again during several excruciating hours. Rev. Nixon and I didn’t end up friends, and we never really made peace—but I don’t regret the experience. I don’t think any of us should be here to hide behind ivy-covered walls.
That Love was Why I was Born
Another time I was surprised during one of my interviews was just last year, when I interviewed a woman in James City—a settlement originally founded by ex-slaves during the Civil War. Her husband had recently died. Two hours into my visit, she grew weary of my questions about the history of the Great Depression and the Jim Crow era and she reached across the table and punched my tape recorder’s off button.
“I want to tell you what has really mattered most to me,” she said. “I loved my husband from the day I set eyes on him ‘till the day he died 52 years later.” “That love was why I was born,” she told me. She added, “And I’m going to see him again one day. God doesn’t make love like that to throw away.”
Other times, I can barely keep from crying. When Hattie Brown, a tobacco farmer in Jones County, finished telling me her grandmother’s heart-rending stories of being a slave, we took a long stroll through her family cemetery. She told me that the present day—with its loss of childhood innocence, its violence, its dislocated communities, its neglect of the elderly, its faithlessness—seemed so infinitely worse than her youth, that she believed that the biblical apocalypse had to be close at hand—how else to understand so much evil?
(See my story on Hattie Brown here.)
I am afraid that I hear that sense of the apocalyptic often. So many people I interview look in despair at the modern age and its prospects. One can only listen to so many heartbreaking stories, look into so many disillusioned faces, be told so many times that, for all its prosperity, ours is a godforsaken age. Eventually one begins to wonder.
Like a parish priest or a country doctor, an oral historian visits people and places easily passed by otherwise and can’t help but see a great deal of suffering.
I’ve learned to recognize the poultry slaughterhouse workers in Hertford, Duplin and Bladen counties by the way they wrap their hands in adhesive tape, locking them into the shape of their tool handles so they can keep working long after the job has rendered their hands useless.
I visit migrant camps just a few miles from here where pesticides that made me cough after only a few minutes drizzle onto little children day after day. I interview elderly people in rest homes and nursing homes where I hear tales of unrelenting sorrow and neglect.
And you want to know loneliness? Talk with some of the daughters who have moved back home and spent 15 or 20 years caring for an elderly mother, day in and day out, without any help or another soul to talk to. You will learn something about loneliness, and love.
An Indian from Person County
And then there are the joyful moments when I walk in the front door to do an interview, and I realize that this person has been waiting all their life for me and, it may turn out, I for them.
This happened to me some years ago during an interview near Roxboro, in an Indian community called High Plains. I’d like to read a brief excerpt from my 12-hour long interview with Lois Epps Jones, a 77-year-old retired nurse who grew up in that remote enclave of Person County.
I went there to learn about the Indians of High Plains (which did turn out to be a fascinating story). But when I came to edit the interview for my oral history series in the News and Observer, I found myself drawing most heavily on her family life, her relationship with her father and an anguished decision she made as a young woman.
Like so many rural women before and since, Mrs. Jones had to leave a beloved community to gain her own freedom. In her case, this meant becoming an Army nurse in 1944. The hardest part, she told me, was saying goodbye to her father, a tobacco farmer named Alexander Epps.
I titled my story “Zan Epps’ Daughter.”
I used to love sitting outside when my dad was curing tobacco. We would sit out in the moonlight and roast apples and he’d tell me about the things that happened when he was growing up. Naturally, when we were working in the tobacco, we didn’t have all the modern things. My dad never had a tractor, never had a chain saw. We were what you called the dirt farmers. We had two little mules. Those old mules were so mean that they would practically eat you up alive. They would have you ragged as a jaybird.
We Indians lived separate and apart. We were set aside because of the color of our skin. We could not go out and eat a meal in public. We could not go in the restaurants because they only had white and colored sections.
We weren’t colored. We weren’t white. We were neither. Blacks at least had a section at the theater—there was no place for us. If we needed to go to the bathroom, right up on the door: white, colored, but no Indian. And for me, as an Indian, to speak to you! Not on your life!
We had our own church, our own school. We’d go to Roxboro maybe once a year if we were going in after a pair of shoes. We never had any use for the law. We weren’t calling the police, and the police wasn’t coming.
Growing up at the farm, we didn’t have time to get out into other things. We were too busy trying to make a living. Mom couldn’t have taken care of 10 children if everybody didn’t have a job. We didn’t have running water. We had to carry water from the old spring. In the afternoons, if she was going to wash tomorrow, we would bring water up, store it in tubs and a barrel the day before. In the summer, when we were out of school, we would take all the clothes down to the branch and wash there. We’d dip our water out, make us a fire in the pot and heat our water.
By the time you did all of that, and take care of your cows, your horses, your pigs, your chickens, you didn’t have a lot of time to think about entertainment. You were so glad to get finished with what you had to do! There were no weight problems then! There was nobody going to the gym and all that, because the gym was right there! All we were looking for was a place to lay down quietly. We didn’t have to have a book accompany us to bed to drop off to sleep!
We were brought up in the church, believing in the way of life that the Bible taught. Never a day started that my parents didn’t ask God’s protection for us and them. It was instilled in us to know that as we lived, so would we die. You don’t live alone, and you don’t die alone. I was taught that how I live my life has an effect not only on me, but on the rest of my family.
If you and your wife work in public, your child will never have the connection with you that we had with our parents, daddy being a farmer. We were taught things. We were around them. If I had a problem, I didn’t go to my peers or call the school counselor. My counselor was my mom. I was born in the warmth of her bed. I remember back, as a very, very young child, standing between my dad’s knees in front of the fire place where it was warm, and my baby brother laying in my mom’s lap. He used to pretend to cry in the evenings, and she would sit him down in her apron and pull off his little shoes and he would warm his feet by that fire. This bonding is what he wanted.
I had a beautiful childhood. I wouldn’t trade it for nothing! No child could have been happier. You see, I didn’t realize how disadvantaged I was because I had so much of the things that are essential. I had love. I had security. I had encouragement. You never had to worry in High Plains, because we were all for one and one for all. Nobody had to fear each other. My sisters and I would get on the road and walk to Bethel Hill on a Saturday, to Virgilina, to Mayo. We’d walk miles and miles. And we had so much joy in our lives, that the tragedies became so much smaller.
I would have preferred to stay, but I knew I couldn’t. If I could have lived right here in Person County and taught school at Bethel Hill or Roxboro, that would have been different. But I couldn’t, not as an Indian. I knew if I ever were to accomplish anything, I had to leave to do it.
I was the first High Plains girl that ever went away from home, that wasn’t married and moved with a husband. My parents knew how much I wanted something for myself, but others laughed at me. Yes, I was the laughing stock! The dreamer! “Your daddy doesn’t even make his expenses,” they’d say. “He can’t ever finance you to do the things you’re dreaming about.” I didn’t expect him to! But one day I was going to grow up. I was determined.
I felt there had to be somewhere in this world I wasn’t going to be treated any different because of who I was and where I came from. When they asked, “Who are your parents? Where do you come from?,” there had to be somewhere that it didn’t make any difference when I said, “I’m Zan Epps’ daughter. I’m an Indian from Person County.”
I wasn’t ashamed of being Zan Epps’ daughter. I was proud. I had one of the greatest dads. Daddy didn’t go to college. He couldn’t read nor write, but he was one of the wisest guys I’ve met. Education is from a book. Wisdom is from God. Any guy could take two little fuzzy mules and this land, raise 10 children and a sickly wife and never take a loaf of bread as a handout, to me he’s not an ignorant guy. He was uneducated in a lot of things, but life didn’t happen to be one of them.
And let me tell you: If you could have seen that old man’s face the first time when I came home from the Army! When I stepped off that train, oh, the look on his face! The pride, the joy. Words cannot express it.
Somebody said to him, “Who are you looking for?” And my daddy raised his hand, proud as a peacock, and said, “That’s my daughter.”
I interviewed Mrs. Jones over three days, two dinners and a long walk through her church graveyard. We became lifelong friends, but when I finished taping her interview, she thanked me for the chance to tell her story.
That happens so often that I wonder if the people I interview realize how much their stories mean to me and the students who will discover and listen to them one day. I am an historian deeply committed to my craft, and I rely on their memories to unveil new truths, to enrich scholarship and to show me more about who we are and from where we have come.
Yet we are also human at a very uncertain hour. I visit people like Mrs. Jones as well, then, because I want to understand their search for faith and their struggles to make sense out of the world—because those are struggles we all share.
I want to know how they have found dignity, grace and beauty in lives that have never been easy. Because we will all know grief and hardship at some point.
And when I feel my own heart hardening, as I sometimes do, I long to know how they have held onto tenderness—or better yet, outrage—in a society so ruthless to the small, the frail and the delicate parts of us all.
For all this I cannot thank them enough. And I pledge—by preserving their memories, by sharing their stories, by sticking little yellow Post-It notes up if I have to—never to forget what they have taught me of history or of the human heart.